Musical numbers: “Every Story Is a Love Story,” “Our Nation Holds Sway,” “The Past Is Another Land,” “Another Pyramid,” “How I Know You,” “My Strongest Suit,” “Night of Nights,” “Enchantment Passing Through,” “The Dance of the Robe,” “Elaborate Lives,” “A Step Too Far,” “Easy as Life,” “Like Father Like Son,” “The Gods Love Nubia,” “Written in the Stars,” “I Know the Truth,” “The Judgment ,” “The Messenger.”
As a show aimed at the family audience Disney has cannily cultivated on Broadway, “Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida,” in its world premiere staging at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater Co., is already a polished product that’s consistently entertaining, even at its silliest (and notwithstanding technical glitches that continued through opening night). Its chief assets are an infectious pop-rock score by Elton John and Tim Rice and a performance by Heather Headleyin the title role that is thrilling in every way. But it’s not a sophisticated or artfully staged production, and it will likely have to brave Broadway — presuming it chooses to — unaccompanied by a chorus of critical acclaim and without the marketing insurance of a previous history as a hit movie.
There’s a small irony here, for while Broadway’s “The Lion King” is an animated movie adaptation that plays like a stage original, “Elaborate Lives” is a stage original that plays like an animated movie adaptation. In both tone and plot, it hews quite closely to the company’s formula for toon tuners: exotic locale of yore, square-jawed hero, spunky heroine, generous splashes of comic relief. Even the interracial love theme has been tested onscreen, in “Pocahontas ,” although death by entombment hasn’t hitherto been among Disney-approved happy endings.
“Suggested by the opera,” as the credits state, “Elaborate Lives” is set in ancient Egypt and follows the forbidden love that grows between Radames, an Egyptian slaver and warrior, and Aida, the Nubian princess he captures and presents as a gift to his fiancee Amneris.
But it’s hard to take the show seriously as an even vaguely sincere depiction of ancient culture. Despite much discussion of expeditions reaching the “second cataract” and the Nubian-Egyptian conflict, these Egyptians sound just like post-adolescents from today’s hot-blooded TV dramas.
In Linda Woolverton’s simplistic book, Amneris is amusingly typed as a sort of Tori Spelling of the Nile. When Aida admires her silks, Amneris quips, “A slave who knows her fabrics — I’ll keep her!” She then sings a doo-wop paean to the joys of getting dressed that’s a delightful show-stopper for Sherie Scott , an actress of sure comic instincts and a terrific vocalist.
But no sooner has Amneris finished flaunting her superficiality than she croons of a heartfelt wish to be taken seriously. And the show’s psychology is similar: Half shamelessly and endearingly silly, it nevertheless has pretensions to greater depth, as indeed it must with a storyline that ends with the deaths of two of the three main characters. The contemporary pop-psych veneer that Woolverton and lyricist Rice supply — Radames (a generic Hank Stratton) comes from a broken home and sings of his “secret lack of confidence,” for example — doesn’t solve the authenticity problem and may indeed exacerbate it. Dialogue is largely throwaway comic or banal. “I’ll never forget you, Aida,” squeaks Amneris lamely as this romantic tragedy draws to a close.
(To be fair, a certain hokum quotient is hard to avoid in seeking to bring such a remote culture alive in contemporary art. The libretto to Verdi’s opera doesn’t read much better; it just sounds better in Italian. And how many of Hollywood’s trips down the Nile can be taken seriously?)
Happily, “Elaborate Lives’ ” score is far superior. It marries John’s immense talent for vocal writing and his mastery of innumerable pop styles to consistently winning effect. Song standouts range from the comic reggae number “Build Another Pyramid” and the aforementioned ’50s-inflected “My Strongest Suit” to the gospel-tinged “The Gods Love Nubia” to a variety of love ballads that tend to pile up in the second act.
Rice’s lyrics are serviceable and adept at moving the story along. When they reach higher, they sound pretty, too, even if their meaning doesn’t always bear close examination (“Death is just the messenger/Love’s the truth it brings,” sings Amneris in the climactic ballad “The Messenger”).
The creative team is largely the same crew that created Disney’s pedestrian stage transcription of “Beauty and the Beast,” including director Robert Jess Roth, set designer Stanley Meyer, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward and choreographer Matt West. While generally proficient, their work here is largely in the same uninspired vein. Traditional glitz and glitter are everywhere; imagination and subtlety largely absent.
West’s choreography is perhaps the greatest offender. It’s standard musicvideo grooving with heavy doses of predictable hieroglyphic posing. A high-energy Nubian slave chorus song verges on high camp: Do these captives have access to the latest in aerobic equipment?
Hould-Ward’s costumes may be aiming for a blend of historical verisimilitude and Broadway dazzle, but they end up somewhere near Hollywood cliche. Bejeweled neckpieces abound, as does fancy gilt headgear. Although some are clearly aiming for laughs, it’s hard to tell where the intentionally silly getups end and the rest begin. Aida’s simple sheaths stand in tasteful contrast (there are apparently some advantages to being enslaved).
Egypt’s familiar use as a backdrop means that its stylistic touchstones — pyramids, hieroglyphics, obelisks — have become cliches (see the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas) that cannot be simply recycled without risking banality or, as here, kitsch. Meyer’s sets are heavy on big gold versions of aforementioned elements, most notably a laser-controlled origami pyramid that spins and folds and rises to create various playing areas. (When it’s working, that is; at both the final preview and on opening night the infernal thing broke down, and one could only wonder if some offended Egyptian deity of taste were casting a baleful eye on the production.)
But amid all the faux gold and synthetic emotion, there is a small mother lode of the real things in the lovely person of Headley, a young actress and singer of breathtaking talents. The way she invests this often kitschy concoction with honesty and integrity merely by walking onstage is amazing to behold. Her performance as Aida has a simplicity and directness that gives the whole show a jolt of authenticity that’s much needed.
Her singing, too, is simply and soulfully beautiful, notably on the rolling, blues-tinged piano ballad that gives the show its title. Whether or not “Elaborate Lives” goes on to take its place as another jewel in Disney’s theatrical crown, it will be remembered for launching this radiant talent. Long may she soar.